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Hyphenation Information

Doubts about hyphens drive people nuts. In my business writing classes, people regularly raise anxious questions about hyphen/no hyphen and word open/word closed. I just got an email from a client who had three hyphen questions, so I am inspired to supply some Hyphenation Information. (I capitalized and bolded the phrase purely on whim. Perhaps someone can use it in a hip-hop lyric. And yes, hip-hop is hyphenated.)

graphic listing the uses of hyphens

Here is the basic thing to know about hyphens: They are used to show the reader that something is connected. If you were writing a newsletter article in a really thin column, you would use hyphens to show that word parts are connected, like this:

I am inspired to supply some Hyphena-
tion Information. I capitalized it and
bolded it based purely on whim. Per-
haps someone can use it in a hip-hop
lyric. . . .

Those hyphens tell the reader, “Don’t stop. Connect this part to the next part.” That is the same message a hyphen in a compound word communicates, like these:

  • a follow-up message (It is not a follow message or an up message; it’s a follow-up message. The hyphen tells the reader to connect follow and up.)
  • two 4-door sedans (There are not four sedans; they are not door sedans. They are 4-door sedans. The hyphen tells the reader to connect 4 and door.)

Using the same logic, you will see that these are correct:

  • nuclear-free zone
  • three-story building
  • 314-page book
  • toll-free number
  • well-read clients

Confusion can arise because the expressions are not hyphenated when they come after the word they describe, like these:

  • I sent a message to follow up.
  • The sedan has four doors.
  • This zone is nuclear free.
  • The building has three stories.
  • The book is 314 pages long.
  • The number is toll free.
  • The clients are well read.

Another difficulty is that the need for hyphens in particular expressions changes over time. For example, we used to write micro-wave oven, but we now use microwave exclusively. Desk-top publishing was once common, whereas now you will typically see desktop publishing. People used to do post-doctoral studies, but now their studies are postdoctoral. The logic behind these changes is that once an expression becomes commonly understood, the hyphen is no longer needed. The expression can be closed up into one word.

Many people still write e-mail. In fact, all these reference books hyphenate it: Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications, The Associated Press Stylebook (even the just-published edition!), The Chicago Manual of Style, and The Gregg Reference Manual.

Despite all the published experts, I close up the word: email. Since we are all familiar with the term, I see no reason to hyphenate it for our reader’s understanding. However, when I write for a client, I use the style my client prefers. (Rule: Write for your client and your reader.)

Here are the questions my client sent me today, with my answers based on research:

  1. Which is correct: setup fee? set-up fee? or set up fee?
    Answer: setup fee. Setup has evolved to one word as an adjective (as in her question) and as a noun: “What a great setup!” However, it is two words as a verb: “Please set up the system for me.”
  2. Which is correct: toll-free numbers? or toll free numbers?
    Answer: toll-free numbers. (No doubt tollfree will soon be accepted.) But “The numbers are toll free.” (See explanation above.)
  3. Which is correct: follow-up training? or follow up training?
    Answer: follow-up training. (See explanation above.)

As for the hip-hop lyrics, let’s see:

Had some consternation ’bout the hyphenation. Got some information, now I’m in formation with the hyphenation. Hear my declaration: I say Punctuation is Power.

Yes, you are right: I had better keep my day job as a business writer.

Other search spellings: hyphentation, hyhenation, hypenation, hiphenation, hyfenation, puntuation, pucnation, puncatuaion, puncatiaon, puncuatiaon, puncation, gramar, grammer

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

4 comments on “Hyphenation Information”

  • What about capitalizing the second word of a hyphenated phrase, such as on the title line of a PowerPoint slide? Example: “How to Become a World-class Company”. People I work with argue that the c in class should be capitalized, but I hold firm that it should not.

  • Kelly, your coworkers are correct. In a title, all the elements of a hyphenated expression are capitalized–except articles, short prepositions, and short conjunctions. Thus “World-Class” is correct, as would be “Up-to-Date,” “Senator-Elect” and One-Sixth.”

    Thanks for asking. I had wondered myself but had not gotten around to confirming my guess.

    By the way, my source is “The Gregg Reference Manual.”


  • Hi Lynn, I stumbled upon this blog while looking for insight on hyphenation for such commonly-used words as ‘on-site’ and ‘off-shore’ and ‘on-demand” in my business writing. I want to thank you for clarifying both the rules as well as the evolution, because it’s all too easy to find multiple excellent sources that present different rules of thumb.

    I love the hip-hop! Thanks for making me smile!


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